‘Shadow pandemic’ unfolding as girls’ health, rights and freedoms erode

27 MAY 2020

Millions at risk as sexual abuse, unintended pregnancies, child marriages spike under lockdown.

A silent and lethal ‘shadow pandemic’ is currently unfolding across the globe as millions of girls are witnessing the erosion of their sexual and reproductive health and rights under lockdown.

A sharp increase in potentially deadly unintended pregnancies, child marriages, sexual abuse and severely restricted access to vital sexual and reproductive health information and services have already been reported in multiple countries worldwide.

Pandemic is destroying girls’ health and lives

Johanne Westcott-Simpson, Plan International’s Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor, said the pandemic is already destroying girls’ health and lives.

“We are staring down the barrel of an extremely serious and widespread health emergency for girls and young women which will have long-term implications for their futures,” Ms Westcott-Simpson said.

We are staring down the barrel of an extremely serious and widespread health emergency

“Girls and young women faced considerable challenges in accessing essential health information and services even before the crisis. Now, amid a pandemic that is straining even the strongest healthcare systems, there is a real risk that sexual and reproductive health and rights will be deprioritised, with devastating consequences.”

“School closures and lockdown measures are leading to a shadow pandemic of gender-based violence and rates of child marriage, teenage pregnancy and female genital mutilation are predicted to soar. Girls and young women will die because they cannot access vital sexual and reproductive health information and services.”

“We know from past epidemics that a lack of access to essential health services due to a shutdown of services can ultimately cause more deaths than the epidemic itself.” Ms Westcott-Simpson added. 

Thousands of young lives at risk

Complications related to pregnancy are the number one killer of girls aged 15 to 19 years old worldwide. According to the latest projections, a lockdown of just six months will result in 7 million unintended pregnancies, with thousands of young lives at risk. 

Complications related to pregnancy are the number one killer of girls aged 15 to 19 years old worldwide.

Research conducted during the Ebola crisis in 2014 to 2016 showed a 75% increase in maternal mortality during that crisis alone. 

Rachel Goba is the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Lead at Plan International Zimbabwe. She says in her country, COVID-19 is causing a serious rollback of girls’ rights. 

“The reality is that COVID-19 going to reverse all of our gains. The most pressing issue we have is gender-based violence. Girls and young women cannot access services if they have been raped and perpetrators can get away with it. Girls have nowhere to go and report these crimes. Others will end up having backdoor unsafe abortions which will lead to death in the worst circumstances.” Ms Goba said.

“Because schools have closed, girls are now limited to house chores because of traditional gender roles and the chances of girls going back to school after COVID-19 are slim. Girls are being sacrificed and married so families can survive.”

Sexual and reproductive health and rights must be prioritised

CEO of Plan International, Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen is calling on governments to prioritise and fully fund sexual and reproductive health and rights as part of their COVID-19 response plans.  

“Where countries are in lockdown, governments should ensure restrictions on movement do not limit access to sexual and reproductive health services. This includes keeping clinics open and ensuring that girls and women can leave home and access services in person or via telehealth,” Ms Albrectsen said. 

She added there is evidence that some conservative governments have used the pandemic to place tighter restrictions on services for safe abortion and contraception. 

“A global pandemic must not be used as a pretext for the restriction or rollback of sexual and reproductive health and rights, many of which have been hard won over decades.”